How to Manage Millennials
I mentioned in a previous post how former Newsweek editor Dan Lyons found his work and his life disrupted when he lost his position at the Paper. His book -- aptly named “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble” -- follows his misadventures at a tech company in Boston. The average age of the employees, he calculated, was 26. He was 52 at the time (in 2013).The way he describes the experience is very much like working in another country that has its own language, customs, prejudices, and taboos.
Born to Lead?
Now, many millennials like the ones at the Boston tech startup, find themselves in management roles. In some instances -- especially in engineering -- older workers may be subordinate to staff younger than they are. This is especially the case if older workers chose to develop specialty engineering skills: the organization still needs the experience, know-how and perhaps even connections in the company the older worker maintains. This is especially true of organizations that maintain legacy systems written in Fortran, COBOL or PL/1.
Middle managers who worked their way up the ladder in companies may also find themselves side-by-side or reporting to a freshly-minted MBAs. Though the younger staff does not have the depth or perhaps breadth of experience of elder workers, millennials will still do their best to show themselves as equals to older employees.
It’s difficult for older workers to keep from sounding patronizing when dealing with their juniors. And it’s difficult for younger workers to keep from sounding patronizing to older workers. It’s up to older workers, though, to lead through example.
Leading By Example
One of the areas in which older workers should lead by example involves exhibiting mutual respect. There are certainly areas in which younger workers -- digital natives, as the media has labeled them -- who are quite savvy with technology. However, younger workers who pride themselves on on their technical prowess tend to have huge deficits when it comes to interpersonal relationships: they’re just not very good at engaging individuals or groups face-to-face.
Sales have been lost and customers angered by the lack of interpersonal communications skills of younger workers. Older workers can “show them a thing or two” in subtle yet instructive ways.
Older staff will set a powerful example for younger workers by getting up from the chair at their desks and walking across the (probably open) workspace to ask for something from younger coworkers, face-to-face.
Millennials may stare back at their interlocutors in utter horror; however, the more senior worker can rest assured they’ve offered a lesson-for-life in the gesture.
Another area in which millennials are weak is in running meetings. They want to be everyone’s friend: after all, that’s what they’re taught at home and at school. Meetings led by younger generations tend to be cheerleading sessions laced with buzz words and good intentions after which everyone claps. This is especially true of “brogrammer” cultures dominated by young white males, many of whom went to the same kinds of schools and lived in the same kind of (American) mayonnaise suburbs.
Older workers can show how meetings can and should be run by presenting agendas ahead of time; narrowing the scope of discussion points, and identifying at the start of the session the objectives of the meeting. Sometimes, ground rules for appropriate behavior need to be laid, simply because younger staff have nowhere else from which to gain experience.
Anti-management Management Structures
The key to ensuring millennials accept this and other organizational structures is to make it matter-of-fact. Present this and other tools and techniques for getting along and getting ahead in companies de rigueur: not as commands that must be obeyed
During the Great Recession, corporations took advantage of the difficult economic environment to thin middle management ranks. Companies have not replaced these organizational sinews; nor have they bolstered training programs for young workers. Instead, it falls on older workers to take on roles more akin to informal mentorships than formal reporting lines.
With career tracks dramatically shortening this may be the last opportunity millennials have to learn an essential skill of organizations: how to organize.